The Republican Party, if not America itself, is like a deer mesmerized by the headlights of an approaching train wreck. The GOP knows full well that Donald Trump has gone off the rails. Party leaders are well aware that he will either lose and lead the party to electoral catastrophe or win and put the entire world in jeopardy. But with a few notable exceptions here and there, the party is looking on, frozen, petrified, hysterical, without any idea of what it’s supposed to do.
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Barack Obama, in a truly unprecedented intervention by a sitting president, tried on Tuesday to shock the GOP to their senses. The man is unfit to be president, Obama said, and conscientious Republicans should disown him. Some Republicans might react angrily, but many others agree with the president. They are like passengers on the Titanic still looking for an excuse to jump ship even though the iceberg hit a while ago and the boat is dangerously listing.
In the past week alone Trump has obliged, several times over. He has displayed increasingly bizarre, erratic and generally inexplicable behavior. The trigger for his latest bout of berserk seems to have been the realization that his doom and gloom convention in Cleveland was overshadowed and outdone by the slick Democratic production in Philadelphia. Since then, Trump has gone from controversy to scandal, from scandal to storm, from storm to near lunacy and back again. Clinton is the devil, he asserted on Tuesday, and it isn’t even considered his biggest outrage of the day.
In the past seven days, Trump has encouraged Russia to hack U.S. computers so it can give him Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. He sounded, on the one hand, as if he wasn’t truly aware that Russia had invaded Ukraine but at the same time that he would consider American recognition of their occupation of Crimea. He also said the Crimeans were happy to be ruled by the Russians. Four decades ago, Gerald Ford essentially lost the elections to Jimmy Carter for saying very similar things about Poland, and he didn’t have a fraction of Trump’s ever-expanding record of other outrages.
In fact, while we’re at it, the term “like a deer in headlights” achieved national prominence in the first place in the U.S. in 1988, after columnists found the expression useful in describing the look on Republican vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s face when his Democratic rival Lloyd Bentsen told him “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” in a televised debate. Quayle was dubbed the village idiot for misspelling potato and immortalizing the saying “the future will be a better tomorrow,” but Trump’s endless faux pas surpassed Quayle’s inanities long ago.
Trump can say one thing today and another thing tomorrow, and they can both be equally wrong, but the pace of his lapses has picked up considerably in recent days. In what sounded suspiciously like an alibi for bowing out, Trump accused the Democrats of “fixing” the timing of the scheduled presidential debates next month so they would conflict with two National Football League games. He even said the NFL had written a letter to protest, but league officials quickly denied the allegation. Then, in what seemed like a far more ominous preparation for a certain defeat, Trump claimed that “crooked” Clinton had rigged the elections themselves. Optimists could contend that he was simply preparing the groundwork for quitting the race and going home in order to avoid the humiliation of coming in second behind her. Pessimists forecast endless strife if Trump lost and his supporters believed that Clinton had stolen the elections.
But by far the most spectacular, most reprehensible and most inexplicable of Trump’s latest shenanigans is his run-in with the parents of Humayun Khan, a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in Iraq in 2004. Even Israelis who want Trump to be elected can feel the outrage: no sane Israeli politician would ever tangle willingly with bereaved parents of a fallen soldier. Not only is it morally reprehensible, it is a clash that is politically unwinnable. John McCain, who took a hit after Trump insulted him by saying he was not a war hero because he was captured, because he needs Trump’s support for his reelection to the Senate in Arizona, couldn’t take it any more. Trump doesn’t represent the GOP, McCain stated, which is a weird thing to say less than ten days after the Republican National Convention formally confirmed Trump’s candidacy.
Trump, in complete denial about the state of play, declined on Tuesday to endorse McCain or U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan for reelection. At a time when he can use all the friends he can get, Trump insists on repelling those who have grudgingly come round to stand by his side. Trump obviously does not subscribe to Ariel Sharon’s famous maxim “restraint is power.” Instead, he’s like a hotheaded bully who flies off the handle at any insult, real or perceived, whether it does him any good or lands him in the hospital. It’s what he was taught by his pal Roy Cohn, the infamous Manhattan lawyer who was Joe McCarthy’s right hand man: always attack, always do it in force and never let a slight go unanswered.
Trump’s advisers repeatedly promise that he has seen the light and will soon pivot to the moderate center, but their statements are usually refuted within a few hours by another one of Trump’s radical departures from the script. He just can’t seem to shake the in-your-face, anything goes formula that won him the GOP primaries. He continuously boasts of having received more votes than any previous GOP contender, but forgets that these 14 million votes are only about ten percent of Americans who cast a ballot for president. His fans may view his outbursts as courageous candor, but undecided voters may be growing increasingly uncomfortable.
Centrist and moderate right voters may not trust or may even detest Hillary Clinton, but they should be growing ever more cautious about handing the keys to the kingdom and the codes for its nuclear arsenal to a candidate who has broken every rule in the book, and then some, often for no explicable reason. The Democratic Convention succeeded in positioning Clinton as a sane and competent candidate, as Michael Bloomberg noted; it could be perceived in the future as the tipping point that pushed Trump over the edge and gave Clinton the presidency.
Of course, such things have been said about Trump many times before and he has always come back to triumph. History also cautions presidential aspirants from counting their chickens before they hatch: Michael Dukakis had a massive bump after the 1988 Democratic Convention that gave him a 17-point advantage. He lost the elections by eight. So anything can happen, and usually it does.
Nonetheless, there is a growing sense that in recent days a line has been crossed and that Trump may have gone full-on Looney Tunes on his party and on the electorate. He seems primed to make that final, fatal mistake that will finish him off altogether, though some believe that he's passed that point of no return already.
“For though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes,” as the Book of Proverbs note. As the late Senator Bentsen might have said, had he gotten the chance, “I served with the righteous. I’ve known righteous politicians. Righteous men have been friends of mine. Mr. Trump, you’re no righteous man."